Talking with A scientist on the curiosity gravy train


Name: Dan Sudran
Age: 70
City: San Francisco
Position: Founder, Community Science Workshop Network


J.: You direct an educational science center in San Francisco, the Mission Science Workshop. It all started with a workshop you ran out of your garage in the late ’80s and neighborhood kids loved seeing how everything works up close. What gave you the idea?

Dan Sudran: I was working as a technician fixing oscilloscopes, and that experience was sort of like school for me. It gave me the idea to explain things to kids with real-life examples, not just formulas from a book. So I started collecting things in my garage, and when the door was open, kids saw what was going on. They started coming in and had a million questions.

Of course at that point, I had some dead animal residue in my freezer, so that was the coolest thing on the block. After that, I realized how cool it was to answer their questions, how much more fun I was having in my garage than at work. So I thought, “I wonder if I could get paid for this?” Once you get on the curiosity gravy train, one thing leads to another, and you start wondering things like how the atmosphere works and how your body maintains homeostasis. It’s a pretty amazing thing.

Dan Sudran with a Van de Graaff electrostatic generator at the workshop’s spring “fund-a-bration” photo/courtesy mission science workshop

J.: That garage science project turned into the Community Science Workshop Network, a public nonprofit with six locations throughout California, including a garagelike space in San Francisco’s Mission District. What is the goal of these hands-on science centers?

DS: The idea behind it is that science should be on a neighborhood level, particularly in poor areas. I believe science is a path to liberation, for opportunity and appreciation for our lives. It shouldn’t be confined to enormous institutions like universities and science museums. We have neighborhoods that have barbershops, churches and synagogues. Neighborhoods should have science places kids can go and look at a microscope.

You grew up in Kansas City, Mo., and moved to Chicago for college. What was your original plan?

DS: I graduated University of Chicago in 1966, which is where both my parents had gone. It was also the height of the draft during the Vietnam War, so it was pretty risky not to go on in school. My (draft) number wasn’t that high, but I was pushed in the direction of law because of it. I was turned off by the idea of corporate law, so I decided I would be what they called a “poverty lawyer.”

J.: What brought you to California?

DS: I was in the first cohort of Vista lawyers after law school and worked with Mexican American migrants who came to work on various crops. The system was kind of stacked against our clients and I didn’t really enjoy practicing law, so I transitioned into union organizing. I marched with Cesar Chavez in the United Farm Workers union and started working as an organizer.

You speak Spanish, correct?

DS: My father had taught me Spanish so when I started working with the union, I learned a lot and could pretty much fool people. They didn’t think a gringo like me could possibly know all the jokes and the dicey words. It’s fun to have two faces — the Spanish and my Yiddish one, too.

J.: How did you transition from union organizing to working as a technician at City College of San Francisco?

DS: I had a funny revelation; I wasn’t really living my own life, but mortgaging my life to other people. I was just giving it over. So I moved back to the Bay Area. I had some friends who were working at Hewlett-Packard and, like me, had nonscience backgrounds. I thought it was cool that they were working with their hands. Growing up, I was always jealous of other kids who had fathers who would fix their cars. My father was an intellectual — he wouldn’t even play baseball with me. So I figured after holding a juris doctorate in law, I would go back for a vocational school degree (laughs).

How involved were your parents in the civil rights movement?

DS: My mother was an activist and would raise money and contribute to the Freedom Riders in the early days. For some reason, Jews could relate to that movement, but other people in Kansas were not very happy about it. There was a connection to having a Jewish background and applying it to people who were discriminated against.

J.: How did your Jewish upbringing inform the type of work you decided to do?

DS: My father was executive director of the Jewish federation. In Kansas City, there was a substantial Jewish community. Both my parents had a social work background and there was a certain connection between Judaism and social justice. It was the ’50s and they were involved in things going on in Kansas City, such as integrating the public facilities, because at that point, there were restricted parts of the city for blacks and Jews. Being Jewish, I had this realization of being looked upon as undesirables. Though we were not persecuted, kids at school would use racial epithets. It was there that I realized there were people in the world who wanted it to be just for white people like them.

J.: What are you doing for High Holy Days this year?

DS: I basically don’t go to anything. If someone invites me, I’ll go. I usually would rather open my book on [scientific] matter. It would hit me in the same place.

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Abra Cohen